Essay collections explore empathy and bad feminism

Broadcast journalism instructor Joanne Kelly examines two books of essays: The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison and Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay.
Red River College broadcast journalism instructor Joanne Kelly reviews two essay collections: The Empathy Exams and Bad Feminist.
Medial students study empathy the same way they study how to set a bone, diagnose a disease or cut up a chest. They practice.

They practice on actors paid to play the role of a young woman having unexplained seizures, or a businessman with a coke addiction, or a grandma with an STD.

The actors grade the students based on an empathy checklist: what crucial info did the medical student manage to elicit from me? What crucial info did they overlook? But the most important check point is item 31: did the medical student voice empathy for my problem?

Leslie Jamison uses her experience as a medical actor as the backdrop of the opening essay in her award-winning collection The Empathy Exams. What she learns about empathy in this fake medical setting sets the tone for the rest of her book:

"Empathy isn't just remembering to say 'that must be really hard' — it's figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn't just listening, it's asking questions whose answers need to be listened to … Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see."

Jamison explores pain, both physical and emotional, and our reaction to it in our selves and in others.

She goes to a conference for people self-diagnosed with a mysterious condition called Morgellons disease. 

She visits her pen pal in prison.
Leslie Jamison, author of the essay collection The Empathy Exams. (Supplied)

She goes on pain tours.  That's not a metaphor; these tours are real. You can pay to explore a silver mine where the workers toil in extreme poverty. You can pay to take a tour led by former gang members through their crime-ridden and decaying Los Angeles neighbourhoods.

Jamison is a sharp and insightful observer of human interactions. Her gift is taking those observations and pushing past the point of comfort to expose truths we may not see otherwise — truths we may not always want to see.

But not all the essays work. While most do what a good argument should do — change the way you look at the world — some are needlessly pretentious and will leave readers bored, confused, irritated or flipping through to the next one. 

Bad Feminist

Roxane Gay does not take the same risks in her safe, but fun, collection of essays, Bad Feminist.
Roxane Gay, author of the essay collection Bad Feminist.

Gay is exploring the backlash on the word "feminism." In recent years celebrities from Lady Gaga to Katy Perry have declared they are not feminists. Many of them say they associate the word with hating men, as too strident, too negative. 

Gay, a writer, blogger and professor of English, says she disavowed the word when she was younger because when she heard the word feminism she also heard, "angry, sex-hating, man-hating victim lady person."

But as she's matured, she embraces the label as a "woman who loves pink and sometimes dances her ass off to music she knows, she knows, is terrible for women" and who loves trashy reality shows, and teen romances.

What's not to love about a funny, smart, experienced woman putting a feminist skewer on modern culture?

Welllll … several things

The biggest issue with Gay's book is her skewering is not sharp enough.

Gay doesn't transcend her material with anything that is new, or, like Jamison does in her book, changes the way you look at the world. But, that being said, Bad Feminist might be a good starter book for the person who is just being introduced, or awakened, to these topics.

Another big issue is the lack of immediacy in a printed book.

Gay examines books, movies, music and television shows through the lens of feminist, gender and racial issues.  But culture — and what is shocking, or in need of a good take down — changes so rapidly in an online world.

It feels dated to be reading about the sexism in the book Fifty Shades of Grey or in the lyrics of Robin Thicke's song Blurred Lines several years after they were considered such big controversies.

Gay and Jamison are both tackling big issues, and in wide-ranging essays there are bound to be hits and misses. But of the two, Jamison hits the bull's-eye much more frequently. 


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